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      She stood before him, clutching a well-loved teddy bear to her chest. Her brown eyes peered at him just over the bear’s now mostly matted ears. He met her stare, trying to match her serious face but unable to rid the smile from the corners of his eyes. Eventually she lowered the bear to reveal a button nose and what his mother used to call “pinching cheeks.”

      “I need a Once Upon a Time. Do you know how to do those?” She whispered, resting her chin on the bear’s head.

      “Oh, I love a good Once Upon a Time! Would you like to sit with me and I’ll tell you one?” He replied, patting the space on the couch next to him and very glad for the distraction.  He’d come to this party against his will, knew no one here aside from his sister, and this small girl was the first to approach him all night. She stood for another minute, once looking back at the crowd behind her. She looked at the space next to him, shook her head and sat down on the floor at his feet.  A few more minutes were spent painstakingly arranging the bear into a sitting position next to her.

      “Ok,” she said at last, looking up at him with the same serious stare, “we’re ready.”

      He cleared his throat importantly and began “Once upon a time in a land far, far away there was a princess. She was not the most beautiful princess in the land. Oh sure, this princess had pretty hair and nice eyes, she just wasn’t quite as pretty as some of the other princesses and maidens.  This princess had something much more valuable than beauty. She was clever.”

      The story tumbled, unrehearsed, out of him.  In the beginning he listened as he talked, gauging her reactions and editing the story as he went. Soon, though, he simply settled back and let the words come. He was as surprised as the girl when the trolls attacked the castle and just as relieved when the clever princess came up with a way to trick them.  As the tale was nearing the end he noticed that the room around him was quiet.  Voices were hushed and crystal glasses held still. The girl was no longer alone at his feet; a few other children had joined her and several adults sat with them. Still more gathered around, forming a tight semicircle.  Midnight came and went unnoticed, somewhere around the time of the dragon wars, and when they reached Happily Ever After it was well into the new year. 

      The crowd clapped happily and exclaimed their surprise at the time. Belated shouts of Happy New Year resounded and the party picked up where it had left off. The other children disappeared back into the woodwork from which they’d crawled at the start of the story.  Only the girl remained, her bear now resting on her lap and the serious stare relaxed into a contented dreaminess he envied in children. 

      “Thank you, that was the best Once Upon a Time.” She stood up and climbed onto the couch next to him and planted a tiny kiss on his cheek. The childhood scent of lavender shampoo and sugar cookies allowed the smile to crawl out from his eyes and light up his face.

      “I’m glad you liked it. I hope Mr. Bear did, too.”

      “He did.  Say goodnight, Teddy” she said, waving the bear’s paw at him just before she turned and headed for the stairs.

      “Excellent story, thanks for saving her from a room full of boring adults!” The woman he recognized as the hostess and the girl’s mother stood before him. They’d met once, a friend of his sister’s. Was she the single mom he was supposed to meet tonight or was that someone else? The thought drained the last bit of energy from him.

      “Actually, she saved me from the room of boring adults,” he replied as he walked past her and out of the house. Princesses, trolls and dragons kept him company on his walk home.


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They walked down 71st street headed toward Central Park.  His limp hand rested in her firm grip as she gently pulled him along. Last night had been another long one, he didn’t see the reason to get out of bed at all today but she insisted and his fear of losing her trumped all others. She was saying something; he turned at looked at her and saw the beginning of fear crawling into her eyes. He braced himself, sure that this was finally it. She was going to say she was leaving him. He shook his head, trying to focus on her words when he heard two loud bangs. People began to scream and someone yelled “get down!” He was reaching out to push her out of the way when he felt punched. He clutched his chest and fell backward in one motion, striking his head on the concrete. Blood poured out of the dime-sized hole, seeping between his fingers. Disembodied faces floated over him, mouths moving quickly but there was no sound until his grey eyes found a pair of sea glass greens and his free hand instinctively reached out for hers. With contact sounds came rushing back and bodies returned to their proper places among the faces but he only looked at her.

 “I had no idea,” he said breathlessly. “Life is draining out of me. I had so much…I never knew…”

“Shh…I’m here,” she said in that practiced calm while placing one delicate finger over his lips. The sea glass eyes filled with water as she took in the reality of this situation. This time the crisis was not imagined. Tears tumbled down her cheeks but her voice remained steady. “I saw the life in you when you couldn’t, it was always there.” She placed her hand over his and intertwined their fingers. The blood washed through them both as she leaned over him.

“I feel it now, so much hope and joy…I stole it all from you…” his voice collapsed into a sob and she rested her forehead on his. They stayed this way feeling his heartbeats slowing and listening to the sirens and screams around them.

“Borrowed, not stolen.” She whispered at last, her breath warm on his cooling skin. “You only borrowed hope until you found your own. I told you I’d be here when you did. I just wish it wasn’t this way.”

“I should have found it sooner, you showed me every day. Why couldn’t I see?” His voice was barely audible now and she did not reply. There was nothing left to say. Her tears covered his face and his blood soaked through her shirt on onto her chest. In this they exchanged their last—this time her fear and uncertainty for his life and peace.

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Did I ever tell you how you saved me? Could you have known all along? I don’t think so. I guess you could have known, you always surprised me with how much you knew, but on this…it’s so hard to tell. I suppose that doesn’t matter now. What matters is how gently you caught me before I even realized I was falling. You wrapped me in stories; novels, essays, classics and contemporary. Sometimes, my favorite times, your own stories. Of course I wasn’t done falling, not even close. Hell, I’m still not. Every time I think I’ve hit bottom it turns out just to be a cloud and I burst through; my own soul thundering and raining down in so many pieces. And yet you were there in the beginning. You saw me drift of course, stumble and fall before I even knew I’d taken a misstep. So each time I remember that, at least once, someone noticed.

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It wasn’t until the overheard phone call that he realized how broken his marriage was. The Wife quipping bitterly to one friend or another how awful her life was. He stood back in the shadow of a tall house plant, peaking through the leaves as if he were an explorer catching an animal in its natural habitat.

“Oh, look at that! The Wife reveals her true colors when she is alone!” He could almost hear the excited whisper of the khaki clad nature host.

A sudden movement brought him out of the jungle and back to his much less exciting and yet still incredibly dangerous life. The Wife swung her arm as though she would slam the phone down and then let it rest gently in the cradle. It was then that he witnessed the most amazing thing in his life. The Wife began to tuck herself in and apply the only face he’d ever seen, now revealed to him as only a mask.  She put herself together piece by piece like one of those ten thousand piece jigsaw puzzles so carefully assembled that from a distance the tiny cracks couldn’t be seen.

“Ah…” he sighed in realization, almost loud enough to blow his cover, “so that’s what she really is. All these years and I never got close enough to see.”

This last thought pulled the plug that unleashed a flood of questions, the last one swirling the drain refusing to be dismissed. Who’s fault is it that I never saw, mine for staying too far back or hers for not letting me in?


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The sky is eating away at the horizon bit by bit, quickly and greedily; almost hoping no one will notice. First the trees, tasty little snacks filled with birds and whispers. Next the mountains topped with cold snow and smothered in dreams. Then the last bit of sun spooned out, refreshing and bright as a sorbet. A perfect dessert at the end of a perfect meal. The darkness fills the void after the sky is finally satisfied for the day and all is quiet.  Just as fear begins to creep in the stars crawl out of hiding. Sneaky stars, so full of delicious wonder they knew they’d be gobbled up first so they hid behind the sun like children clutching at their mother’s skirt. Only after the sky is sated do the come out to play. Some standing proud and bright, others bashfully dim and still more leaping across the expanse in streaks of sheer pleasure. They are free to play until the sun creeps up and calls them home. The horizon returns to taunt the sky, spilling forth its bounty for all to behold until once more the sky devours it bit by bit. 

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Writing on the Wall

One day it became clear to her that no one was going to build the nest for her so she’d better get on with it. Her structure came in the form of words–sentences gathered one at a time and threaded in with others. Sometimes just a single word woven in and other times entire paragraphs plucked from the world around her. Words were the one thing that constantly surrounded her.  Food, clothes, friends; all these things were sparse but words! Words encircled her and built her up. So why not pluck a few here and there to make her own space? Soon the weaving became less delicate and more structural. She had to be safe inside this nest of hers. The sides became tall walls and seldom would one word at a time do. Paragraphs, essays, and whole novels stacked up to reinforce the edges of her center. Sometimes she stayed curled up inside for days reading and rereading her purloined words. Or she’d loose a week or more adding new words, gathering from every source available; until one day she looked around and realized she’s sealed the nest in and forgotten to leave a door. Her walls were steep and too tall to climb, the pinnacle only allowing enough light by which to read. She looked around her creation and bent to pick up the one word she’d had no use for before. It was dusty and faded from lack of use but as she read it the word began to brighten a little. Finally she spoke it aloud for the first time “home”. The sound of it filled her with warmth and she curled up with it, a tiny smile playing on her lips. This was her home and these were her words.

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Caitlin sat by the water crying softly into her hands.  The cries had subsided from the wracking sobs but the pain inside still cut deep. Caitlin ached in a way she’d never experienced before and yet she somehow knew she would feel this pain again and again throughout her life. The real trouble was Caitlin could not pinpoint the source. There had been no recent trauma, nor even a petty dispute with a friend.  She simply awoke with a feeling of dread that slowly filled her up like bread left to rise.  It pushed against her heart and lungs, making her breath come in shallow gasps and eventually causing a panic such that Caitlin fled from her house as fast as her legs would go.  She reached the lake without really intending to and plunged herself into the clear, icy water.  The shock of the cold seemed to punch down her dough ball of dread and Caitlin cried out, unleashing a torrent of tears.  At some point she crawled out of the water and curled up along the bank in a tight ball, trying as hard as she could to literally hold herself together while her sobbing threatened to tear her apart.  Now she sat, hiccupping every so often, and starring at her disheveled reflection in the lake.  Her black hair hung in thick, tangled ropes off each shoulder and her usually milky coffee colored skin was blotched and puffy.  Her brown eyes were rimmed in red, both irritated from her tears and the lake water.  Caitlin laid back and stretched out along the banks, stiff from being curled so tightly.  She starred up at the cloudy sky and worried about what this meant.  In her twelve years she’d never felt so out of control.  She tried to think back to being a small child, surely at some point she’d had similar crying fits.  Caitlin could not place any but knew that had such an event occurred it would have been excused as a child’s tantrum.  Today’s fit felt not only more out of control but Caitlin distinctly felt a fit of this magnitude would not be so lightly excused. This was the raving of a mad person and Caitlin knew she could not tell anyone or she’d never be accepted.  With this last thought Caitlin sat up and took several deep breaths and felt her insides pulling tightly back together.  She would hold herself together and learn control.  With a firm nod at her reflection Caitlin stood and marched back home.

Somehow along the road back home Caitlin’s resolute determination to take control of this new torrent of emotion dissipated and eventually fluttered away like a small, frightened bird.  Caitlin sighed and began to reason with herself.  Surely this wouldn’t happen again, it had never happened before so it must be a one off.  Something she ate that reacted strangely or perhaps a nightmare that she couldn’t remember but felt deeply.  Yes, that must be it. She’d had a bad dream and overreacted like a silly kid.  Caitlin forced a tight smile on her face and pushed a troubling feeling of doubt down on top of the now flattened doughy dread.  As Caitlin walked into her kitchen her mother looked up from the stove where she was preparing breakfast. 

                “Hello, Little Bird, you’re back just in time to eat.  Hurry up or you’ll be late for school.  How was your morning run?” Caitlin’s mother’s voice floated to her like wind chimes in summer and Caitlin’s smile relaxed and broadened.  A morning run, just as simple as that, what had she been so worked up about?

                “It was good, I went to the lake and back. It wore me out a bit though.” Caitlin replied as she slid into her spot at the table. Caitlin laid this happy moment over the doubt and dread of the morning, much like she often threw a blanket over her bed intending to make it properly later. 

A few weeks went by without another incident and Caitlin had almost forgotten about it entirely until one Saturday morning.  She awoke at the brink of dawn as usual and began to plot her morning run in her mind. It seemed to take her longer than usual to be able to focus on the route she wanted to take and Caitlin decided she needed to get up and move around a bit. She tried to reach over and pull back the blanket and found that she couldn’t move her arm.  She felt very heavy, as if someone were pushing her down onto the bed.  Caitlin tried to sit up and could not.  She felt worry rising up inside her chest and thought she might panic but quickly realized that took too much effort. She was too tired to care about anything.  Caitlin closed her eyes and let herself get pushed into the mattress. When she next opened her eyes the light in the room seemed the same.  Caitlin smiled, thinking she’d only slept a few extra minutes and would have time to get her run in.  She sat up and smiled again at how easy it was. Maybe she hadn’t woken up at all but had just dreamed it.  As Caitlin stood a piece of paper fluttered to the floor.  Bending to pick it up Caitlin noticed the clock on her table said five o’clock.  Caitlin sat on the edge of the bed and read the note: “good morning sleepy head! You must need your rest, enjoy it! Your mom and I went to do some shopping. I’m sure you’ll be glad you missed it! Should be home around 5. Love, Dad” Caitlin jumped up, realizing they’d be home any minute. Determined not to let them know she’d slept all day she threw on some clothes and ran downstairs. She’d just slid onto the couch and clicked on the tv when they walked in.  Attempting to appear normal, Caitlin kept flicking the channels and called out what she hoped was a bored “hello”. While her family bustled around unloading shopping bags and groceries Caitlin absently flicked the channels and pondered what this meant.  She’d slept a solid twenty hours.  Her muscles felt stiff and she still felt like she could sleep another twenty.  Caitlin wanted to cry but felt she needed to keep up her front so she squashed this feeling down on top of the first one, breathing deeply and imagining herself packing her feelings away as carefully as her father packed a suitcase.  She heard her mother and father laughing in the kitchen and the sound filled her with a warmth she was able to lay over the unpleasant little pile.

After dinner Caitlin sat in her room trying to make sense of it all.  Trying to find a reason for feeling this way made her head hurt and threatened to raise another panic.  Caitlin looked over at the china vase on her bookshelf. It appeared to be a small vase intended for only a single flower but upon closer inspection was deceptively large and capable of holding an entire bouquet.  No matter how warm her room was the vase was always cool to the touch and Caitlin loved how reliable it was in that way.  Such a simple object, so delicate and yet so sturdy and it was always there ready to hold whatever Caitlin wanted to put inside.  Caitlin pressed the vase on her forehead and sighed. It felt wonderfully cool against her skin and Caitlin closed her eyes.  She pictured the vase being a part of her, a place she could store the things she didn’t know what to do with.  If only she could put these troubling feelings inside something and hide them away! Then she could forget them and move on, out of sight out of mind just like her mother said whenever she packed up old decorations and things from the house and stuffed them into the attic.  Caitlin thought about this for some time and eventually began to picture the vase forming in her belly, surrounding the unkempt pile of pain, fears and indecision she’d carelessly placed under a thin blanket of happy images.  The vase grew around this pile and Caitlin felt herself relax some more.  She pictured the vase filling her abdomen and looking exactly like the one she held to her face.  It was delicate but large enough to handle any number of things Caitlin wanted to stuff inside, so long as she compressed everything tightly.  Caitlin opened her eyes and grinned.  She’d found her own internal attic she could hide away anything unpleasant.     

Time is like an eel, slipping between rocks before you notice it and always getting away before you can grab hold. In this way Caitlin began to realize she more likely to be considered a young woman than a girl.  Her china vase had proved to be very effective over the years and any time Caitlin felt herself losing control she would close her eyes and picture the vase and imagine herself forcing down the previous contents and pushing the latest fear through the narrow opening.  This too would be shoved down and the vase would settle back against her internal organs.  Her intestines curled around the vase like a large, protective snake and kept the vase securely in place until the next time she needed it.  Caitlin began to feel heavy and no longer ran; her belly was too full to be jostled by running! She also ate less with each meal, finding there was not as much room for food now, but this seemed like a good thing to her.  So Caitlin grew taller and thinner, losing some of the earlier muscle mass from her younger, more active days. People often remarked about how thin she was and Caitlin agreed, often thinking of her entire body as the vase, larger on the inside than it appeared from a distance and delicate enough to keep people at arm’s length so they never glimpsed her secret.    Caitlin progressed in school and was coming close to graduation, her grades high enough to please her parents and get her into a decent college.  Caitlin worked a part time job and had a few friends, exactly as one ought to.  She was the model child her parents wanted, so long as they didn’t look directly at her with any real scrutiny. And so time continued to slink by with Caitlin surviving life, happy enough surrounded in her protective cocoon until one day it all began to change. Little by little the vase began to crack and refused to hold any more secrets.

The first crack came at the start of her senior year. Caitlin sat up tall in the front row, determined to do as well in this class as the others. The teacher was new, just out of college and starting his first day of the first year of his career with a room full of seventeen year olds who wanted nothing more than to be done with high school.  Mr. Parson had piercing green eyes that Caitlin couldn’t help notice.  He rambled on about the syllabus and class rules, Caitlin barely listening as she stared out the window and daydreamed.  His words floated softly to her in the midst of her dreaming “how do you feel, Caitlin?” Before she had time to shake herself awake and place his question in any sort of context some part of her began to answer. “I feel like no one sees me at all, not even the mirror.” Caitlin turned to Mr. Parson as she spoke and those green eyes popped her dream like an overfilled balloon. She gasped as she felt a hairline fissure run down the side of her vase. Caitlin felt as if the blush reddening her cheeks was the result of internal bleeding.  The class giggled and Mr. Parson eyed her more closely that Caitlin cared for.  “I mean, that’s Dickenson or something, right?” Caitlin attempted to recover as she slid down in her chair. Mr. Parson’s stare rested on her for a few more uncomfortable minutes until he cleared his throat and said “I don’t believe it is but I’ll check. Glad you enjoy poetry as we’ll be covering quite a bit this term…” his voice droned on as Caitlin gently prodded her vase, attempting to determine the extent of the damage. She felt mostly the same, embarrassed but not over run with panic so it must not be too bad.  “That was a close call! Be more careful, if it breaks open then they’ll all see.” Caitlin silently chided herself. 

After that incident Caitlin avoided Mr. Parson as much as she could, slumping in her chair and trying her best not to look him in the eyes.  He gradually seemed to forget about her strange comment on the first day and Caitlin accepted the small fissure on her vase as a near miss, a warning to remain vigilant.  She pulled back slightly from her friends, not dismissing them entirely but ensuring that they didn’t get too close.  She did the same with her family. No one seemed to notice the distance growing between them and this fact filled Caitlin with a confusing plume of pride and loneliness.  This, too, she shoved into her vase, pressing gently so as not to push against the weakened spot.  To cork it she’d think back to happy times and squeeze a pleasant memory in the neck of the vase.  These memories were becoming more distant and harder to grab, the attempt often sending Caitlin into a spiral.  She’d reach for a good memory and it would slip through her fingers, the resulting dread would push against her and cause her to fall into the pit at the bottom of the vase.  In here the oldest pains had congealed into a putrid sludge and the freshest thoughts floated on top, preventing Caitlin from keeping her head above the surface.  In times like this she found she had two options: thrash, kick and fight until she forced herself back out of the vase and into the real world bruised and gasping from the effort or allow herself to drift away. The second option was so much easier and the sludge would become so warm and thick that Caitlin almost had no desire to fight it.  In these times she would curl up as tight as she could and close her eyes, letting everything she’d been running from cover and consume her.  The pressure from so much left unsaid would push against the chasm of loneliness inside her and cause a strong vertigo.  Sometimes these moments lapsed into night and she’d wake in the morning on the other side again. She could shake it off, force back any sludge that had sloshed out, and go on.  Other times this vertigo held her so tightly that she could not break free and she’d stay in bed for days at a time.  The flu or a migraine served as a murmured excuse and the fear of overplaying these excuses eventually buoyed her back to the surface. 

The second crack came during another English class after a writing assignment.  Caitlin completed the assignment for homework the night before as instructed. It was a simple writing prompt: Who are You. She’d begun by being superficial and flip; putting in just enough effort to give Mr. Parson what he was looking for, but then her pen struck against the weak spot on her vase and the inkwell filled with the hidden feelings.  Without realizing it she began to write the real answer to the question in an essay that spelled out everything she feared.  Each time she pressed down with the pen more cracks began to web out from the first.  Caitlin fell into a deep sleep after completing the essay and awoke just in time to run to school.  She got to class as the bell rang and slipped breathlessly into her desk.  As Mr. Parson took roll she began to reread her essay and her heart pounded. There was no way she could let anyone read this! Caitlin slipped the creased papers into her folder and tried to scribble out a second one but her mind was racing to quickly for her to grab ahold of any one thought.  She felt another attack coming on and forced herself to breathe deeply. Her heart pounded and her intestines roiled, threatening to expel last night’s dinner and Caitlin gripped the edges of her desk. She looked up and saw Mr. Parson’s smile mixed with a touch of concern.  “Stage fright, is it? Nothing to worry about, no one is expecting Shakespeare.  Go on, read to the class.”  Caitlin found herself nodding along with him, too overwhelmed to say no.  She wanted to run from the room, or come up with some great reason why she couldn’t read her essay, but her body and mind refused to obey.  A numbness spread through her body, as if she were going paralyzed from the inside out.  Caitlin stood before the class and read what she’d written. Each word she uttered felt like a tiny earthquake inside her vase until, with the very last sentence, it busted open. Caitlin stood still, afraid to move, and waited. At first it was just a hole, a window looking inside the darkness of her soul and Caitlin sighed.  She could fix that, it would be okay. But no, this last attempt at covering the inevitable sent it spilling forth.  Caitlin felt the rotten, liquefied remains of years of decomposing feelings ooze forth.  She slid back into her seat, sure that she’d left a trail of slime behind her.  Everyone could see it now, it was coloring her skin black and purple like a bad bruise. Her stomach sloshed with the bile and she knew if she began to vomit she’d never stop. Her eyes seemed to darken and her body bent forward with the weight of it all.  Five years of fear, panic, worry and dread mixed into a miasma of crazy that filled her every pore.  Caitlin could hardly hear over the rush of it filling her veins and she could not look anyone in the eye. 

From that day on Caitlin tried to live with this bile pumping through her veins. She tried to scrape it up and build a new vase, and succeeded at hiding some of it away, but she couldn’t undo the damage. She was infected with a virus of her own creation.  Her ability to live alongside it was over, she longed for the days when it only attacked a few times a month.  Now she fought a daily battle to get out of bed. The sludge pulled against her and dragged her down.  She managed to go on to college but did not thrive. The outside pressures mixed with those internal and she’d have little explosive fits. Sometimes crying desperately for no reason and other times yelling.  Caitlin spent most of her time in her room, intent on quarantining the virus from others. She’d spend days and nights studying, trying to make up for her failure to attend classes. She rarely slept, each attempt to relax only invited the virus to take over and her mind would swirl with everything she so desperately wanted to forget.  One night, after three successive nights without sleep, she found the solution.  It was so obvious that she immediately berated herself for not coming to it sooner.  Caitlin shoved her greasy hair out of her face and grabbed the few crumpled bills on her desk. She made it to the art supply store just before they closed and grabbed the first Exacto knife she saw. On impulse she grabbed a pack of replacement blades and fled from the store without waiting for her change.  She tried to make it back to her room but the pressure was too great. She made it into the stairwell and collapsed on the bottom step.  Her dorm room was eight flights up and the grimy stairs mocked her. Caitlin rolled up her sleeve and laid back against the stairs. She watched them spiral above her as she slid the blade against her skin. She was sure she could hear a hiss of pressure release as the first cut opened. Her blood was so black as it poured down her arm that Caitlin knew this was the only way.  She cut again and again until eventually her breathing returned to normal.  She found she was crying but not the wrecking sobs she had become so accustomed to.  These were tears of relief.  Caitlin looked down at her arm and saw that the pattern was an exact match to the web of cracks that first appeared on her vase.  With one final, slow glide of the blade Caitlin crossed through the cracks.  She no longer needed to contain her virus but set it free.

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